“Passionate, loving, & trustworthy”: The Unforgotten Death of Keith Warren (Part 1)
This piece is published in memory of Keith Warren and in honor of his mother, Mary Couey.
TW: descriptions of violent death, anti-Blackness, grief from loss of a child
“Passionate, loving, trustworthy.”
When I asked Sherri Warren what words best described her older brother Keith, she stated these three without hesitation. Throughout our conversation, it was abundantly clear that Keith was a kind young man with a bright future; maybe in the auto industry, as he liked to work with cars.
Unfortunately, the world never got to truly experience Keith’s passionate, loving, and trustworthy character. On July 31, 1986, Keith was found dead near his home in Silver Spring, Maryland, his life cut tragically short. Horrifically, he was found strung up on a tree in the wooded area behind his home.
The Montgomery County Police ruled Keith’s death a suicide at the scene and immediately sent his body to Collins Funeral Home to be embalmed. For six years the family accepted the ruling of suicide, despite their mistrust of the findings.
That changed in 1992 on what would have been Keith’s 25th birthday, when photographs of his death scene were left on his mother’s doorstep.
The photos revealed shocking discrepancies and procedural failings in the police’s investigation: the clothes Keith left home in are not the same as those on his body in the photos; while his signature brown boots were returned to his family, he was not wearing them when his body was found; and perhaps most confounding of all, his feet are touching the ground, stretched out in front of him, the small tree not even able to support his weight.
When Keith’s family raised enough money to have his body exhumed and an autopsy performed in 1994, pathologist Dr. Isidore Mihalakis did not find a medical basis for the finding of suicide.
His mother Mary spent the rest of her life fighting for the truth in her son’s case. She started letter writing campaigns, published pamphlets, and even shared Keith’s story on Unsolved Mysteries multiple times.
After she died prematurely in 2009, her daughter Sherri immediately took up the mantle. Now, 37 years after Keith’s death, Sherri was gracious enough to sit down with us to tell her family’s story.
We hope that this piece will serve as another way to honor and preserve Keith’s memory and that the Warren family finds the answers we all know are out there. Maybe this will finally break down the wall of secrecy created around the beautiful life and devastating death of Keith Warren.
This interview was originally recorded on June 6, 2023. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Emma Buchman (Digital Content Director & Blog Editor, March On Foundation):
Thank you so much, Sherri, for sitting down and speaking with us about Keith. I’m excited to hear Keith’s story, and your story with fighting for justice for him…
First, can you just tell us a little bit about you: who you are, what you do, and one or two experiences that made you who you are?
Sherri Warren (Marketing Specialist, Community Advocate, & Sister to Keith Warren):
My name is Sherri Warren. I am the sister of Keith Warren and the daughter of Mary Couey.
I live in Maryland. My full-time job is marketing; but my passion is justice and accountability for my brother and helping others by using his story to fight for their loved ones and give their loved ones a voice.
Two things that put me on this path of where I am today, sitting here talking to you, would be – one, my brother’s death; and two, my mother’s struggle to get justice for my brother and his death.
That makes a lot of sense. So, speaking of Keith – today, you’re here telling the unfinished story of your brother, Keith Warren. Where did Keith’s story begin?
Well, his life began in Kansas City, he was born in Kansas City [on April 9, 1967]. My parents moved to North Carolina after he was born. Then my parents divorced, my mom moved up here…
…In 1986, Keith was found strung up on a tree in Montgomery County, Maryland.
At the time, my mom did not think to question [it]. I mean, we didn’t think that he killed himself, but you had a single Black female with two kids living in Montgomery County with no money.
Back then… I want to say Montgomery County [was], probably, top three of the richest counties in Maryland. So, you had a woman who was trying to grieve her child, but at the same time trying to understand why her child was hung up on a tree.
Her search has led us down this 37 year journey of just trying to understand… how is it that Keith ended up on a tree, and his death was never investigated?
Had his death been properly investigated back in 1986, you and I would not be having this conversation today. But due to the fact that there are so many unanswered questions, and there’s so much pushback from Montgomery County… it’s disturbing…
Unfortunately, up until 2009, my mom was the face of this fight. She was the voice, and it was because of her that I’m sitting here today.
She unexpectedly passed away in 2009. Once she passed away, I couldn’t just not continue on with trying to get some sense of closure in Keith’s death.
I’ve experienced so many parallels from her journey to my journey, dealing with the county and the state. All we’ve ever asked is just explain: how did Keith get strung up on a tree?
His body never made it to the coroner’s office or medical examiner’s office. It went straight from the scene to the funeral home. That in itself should call into question the cause of death.
To bring your readers up to speed, as of today, June 6, my simple request is that my brother’s death certificate reflect the evidence. The evidence shows that this is not a suicide. [Editor’s note – at the time of publishing, the Medical Examiner has still not responded to Sherri’s request.]
I am not an unreasonable woman. I have said this to the Chief of Police of Montgomery County, to Chief [Thomas] Manger, to Chief [Marcus] Jones: I’ll meet you in the middle. I’ll go with “Undetermined”.
All I’m asking is that you make it make sense to me, because there’s nothing medical, scientific, or factual to say that Keith’s death was a suicide. It’s stated in the three part docuseries Uprooted, it’s on Discovery Plus, which goes into greater detail – I’m just touching on little tidbits here.
I have this in writing, it’s on my website: Detective [James] Beasley spoke to an unknown, unnamed, unrelated person at the scene of my brother’s death. This person, who was never identified, told Beasley about my brother’s prior mental history. Beasley then took that information and used it as justification to close the case immediately as a suicide, and then release Keith’s body to Collins Funeral Home, right down University Boulevard in Wheaton.
The unfortunate part about it is – they have admitted that this is what factually happened. This is not speculated: Chief Jones, who was then-Captain Jones, put it in writing in 2014. He said he spoke to Beasley, [and] Beasley told him a story. So if the detective’s telling you that he used information from a third party who was not related and unknown…?
From the day that my mom started her search trying to find out what happened to my brother, evidence started disappearing. Documents started being destroyed.
The clothing that Keith has on the tree when he was found is not the clothing that we got back at the time of death. We didn’t find this out till years later, but again: if I’m factually showing you that there is a discrepancy in the investigation that your department put together, why can’t you just meet me halfway?
Anyway, I don’t want to hijack the conversation; but I just wanted to try to give you some context as to where I’m basing my claims of reclassification of my brother’s death certificate.
Keith was a thinker. He was very protective of me and my mom, he used to fight my battles… He was very loyal…
That makes total sense. You and Keith are the stars of this piece, so feel free to talk as much as you want. My next question was – what was Keith like as a child?
Keith was quiet. On the personality spectrum I was the loud, obnoxious one; he was the introverted, quiet one. He was very loyal.
He was a thinker. He was very protective of me and my mom. He used to fight my battles; you know, the little sister mouth always got me in trouble at school. He would always have to fight for me…
He had a series of friends. I try to be careful trying to explain this, because it’s weird: Keith was a Black white boy. For those who don’t understand that – he was a Black boy, when all of his friends were white. All of my friends were Black when we were in high school.
I didn’t like his friends. They didn’t care for me, I didn’t care for them, whatever.
It’s unfortunate because I used to tell Keith, “They’re not your friends. They don’t really like you.” I used to say to him, “They’re going to be the death of you.”
Sometimes, when you speak things into reality… I always have regretted, since the day he died, that I used to say that.
Before he died I was in New Jersey, I wasn’t here; but my mom used to tell me his friends were all in the house. They were all on my phone, in my refrigerator, on my floor, just around him.
Then the day and a half he was missing – nobody called, nobody came by.
My mom even called looking for him. My brother left the house on a Tuesday, my mom saw him walk out the door. He didn’t come home Tuesday night, which is not like him. My brother was never in trouble, he never had a record, he was never arrested. So when he didn’t come home Tuesday night, mom thought it was weird.
She tried to file a missing persons report. Police were like, “You have to wait 48 hours.” So then she calls his best friend on Wednesday (not going to mention his name — he likes to sue because he’s a b*tch ass like that, but I digress)…
He said to my mom, “I know where Keith is, I’ll go get him”.
Then Keith’s body’s found on Thursday… Yeah, I’m going to let your people put that two and four together.
I say all that to say, be careful who your friends are; just like that girl Shaquila Robinson who went to Mexico, figured she was traveling with her friends last year, ended up dead. Just be careful.
It’s very troubling to think that the people that my mom and me thought were his friends could possibly have something to do with his death, you know?
Yeah, it must be really hard. You would expect at the very least, that they would be calling you back, coming around the house, helping you look for him.
Oh, let me, let me touch on that… Once Keith died, they never came by.
Never called, never checked on my mom… They did one time, and it was after I threw a fit in the mall at Wheaton Plaza. [I’ll] never forget this – I saw them walking and I almost tried to spit on ’em, that’s how irritated I was.
I was just so aggravated, my mom was over here mourning the loss of her child; and she really embraced you people. She allowed you in our home, and you can’t even call? You can’t even come cut the grass?!
They all came over at one time maybe a month or two after Keith died. That was the last time I ever saw them…
I had to leave the house though. My mom, she made me leave. She’s like, “I don’t want you here.” <laugh>…
What were some of Keith’s favorite things to do?
He liked to be in the woods, he liked to be outside. We grew up in North Carolina, so he used to be out in the woods all the time.
He loved animals. He liked to be by himself. He liked to play basketball, he liked to play tennis; he used to do it in an unorthodox way – he used to play in these ugly-ass brown construction boots. He was just a typical man’s boy, you know?
What is one special memory that you have with Keith that you still think of frequently?
Right around the time my parents got divorced – because he was my first best friend; we used to fight like cats and dogs, but he was my first best friend – we made a pact that we would never leave each other. Because when your parents are divorcing it’s like, okay, well, we’ve got each other.
I’m going to tear up at this point: I was so mad at him when he died, because I was just like… why did you leave me? I blamed him initially. Then I blamed myself because I wasn’t here.
But… why? What did you do? Why did you put yourself in a position that you had to leave me? Now you got me with our crazy-ass parents. I was so mad at him.
[Anyway], that was one of my favorite memories: he’s going to always be my protector.
That’s so sweet. What did Keith hope to do as a career? What was he passionate about?
He was going to college. My dad had a business at the time when we were in school, and he was probably going to try to take over dad’s business. He hadn’t really got his direction, but he liked to work on cars. He used to work at a car dealership. He liked to do things with his hands.
Unfortunately, because of Montgomery County, Maryland, we’ll never know what the possibilities could be. I’ll never be an aunt.
My mom, she suffered… the 23 years that she fought for justice for my brother, each year took the life out of her because she lived with the what-ifs, what-could-bes, and what-should-have-beens, you know?
But I have two great angels right now. I promise you, he’s protected me on… I’ve been in some situations, Lord have mercy. I know he’s over there doing his magic, because I should’ve been dead. But that’s another conversation for another day, <laugh>.
Recently there was a murder trial of a stepmother who killed her stepson. [At her sentencing], one of his relatives said that she not only murdered her stepson – she murdered his children, his grandchildren. She murdered the comfort that he would’ve given to people that he met in his life, the connections he would’ve made, and the way he would’ve impacted those people’s lives. It’s not just one death, it’s many.
Keith liked to be in the woods, he liked to be outside. He loved animals. He liked to be by himself. He liked to play basketball, tennis; he used to do it in an unorthodox way – he used to play in these ugly-ass brown construction boots.
Right? That’s what I want Montgomery County to understand, so I hope that this reaches someone on a County and State level. Someone took my brother’s life. Someone got away with murder, because until you show me otherwise, he was murdered.
They’ll say behind closed doors, “Procedure wasn’t followed. Policy wasn’t adhered to. However, dot, dot, dot, dot…”
Don’t tell me, tell the public! Tell the people who loved Keith, who know he didn’t do it.
When I have Doug Gansler – former state’s attorney of Montgomery County, former Attorney General – on camera in the documentary supporting me and saying that the paperwork should be updated – what more do I need? What more do you need to know?
They just don’t like to admit their mistakes…
If you could describe Keith in three words, what would they be?
Passionate, loving, trustworthy.
I love that. You sort of already covered this, but if there was something you missed that you wanted to say…
The question is, “How did Keith die?”; but because of the Montgomery County Police, we can’t know that. So, what were the circumstances of Keith’s death?
So… I can’t give you a clear answer on that, because there is no clear answer.
All we know is he left the house on a Tuesday, his body was found on [that] Thursday. At the time of his death, the Montgomery County Police Department rushed to close the case. In doing so they did a lot of missteps, from sending the body from the scene directly to a funeral home of their choice.
We didn’t choose it. My mom didn’t choose it. I was a minor, I wasn’t here, I didn’t choose it. My dad was out of state; he didn’t choose it.
When in conversation with the State police and the Montgomery County Police Department, the question comes up, “Well, who chose the funeral home?”
They will say, “Well, we didn’t choose it.” Well, if my mama didn’t choose it, I didn’t choose it, no one from my family chose it, you did choose it!
Then they’ll say, “Well, it was just the closest one.” So again, you chose the funeral home. Just say that. Right? That’s the simple stuff that I go back and forth with them [on].
Then a month after we buried him, we found out they cut the tree down. We haphazardly found that out.
Keith was found literally 500 yards from my house. His car was parked at the clubhouse. He was found in our neighborhood, in an area that was not familiar to my family.
If you go on YouTube, you type in “Keith Warren”, I put up a couple of videos where I did a “Walk with Keith”. I show you from where his car was parked to the location close to where his body was found. He could have parked his car literally 20 feet from where his body was found. His car was found at the clubhouse, which was a quarter mile from where his body was located.
It’s ridiculous to think that my brother parks his car at the clubhouse, walks through our neighborhood, takes a change of clothes, a 40 foot rope, two four packs of wine coolers, and a duffel bag full of tapes to walk through the neighborhood, go to an obscure location that was not familiar to my family, to hang himself.
Then this woman supposedly finds his body – again, I implore you to go watch Uprooted on Discovery Plus, because I’m giving it no justice. She finds Keith’s body in the middle of the day, around one o’clock in the afternoon, 1:00/1:30PM. This is when, again, Keith’s body goes straight to the funeral home and is immediately processed, meaning embalmed.
This is before they tell my mom, who was working at Walter Reed at the time, literally 20 minutes down the road.
It took them six hours – my mom did not find out that my brother was dead until seven o’clock that night. Now mind you, they had had the body since one o’clock.
At the crime scene, remember I said he had two four-packs of wine coolers; [the packs were] given back to us. Everything I just mentioned I have, except for his clothing. Okay? The clothing he had on the tree was not given back to us at the time of death. We were told there was so much decomposition they had to destroy the clothing. Right?
Right… but you couldn’t tell me how long he’s been there?
There’s nothing medical on his death certificate. There’s nothing medical on the coroner’s report, other than “blue blowflies”. There is no definitive date or time of death.
You would’ve thought they collected the bottles, or at least sent his blood off to a toxicology test? None of that was done. Witnesses have since told me through the years – there were no empty bottles around Keith’s body.
So… you mean to tell me that my brother wanted to be casket sharp? He drank eight bottles of wine cooler; [then] in the middle of the night, in a wooded area with no lighting other than the Moon, he used an elaborate rope configuration between two trees; then changed his clothes, threw the empty bottles away, came back, and jumped off some obscure object to hang himself. Right? Exactly.
A month after Keith died is when my mom started asking questions. Rodney Kendall, who’s in the docuseries, and who’s still talking to this day, takes my aunt to where we thought the tree was. Long story short, she comes back, the tree’s gone. My mom’s like, “What do you mean the tree’s gone?”
So my mom calls Detective Beasley, who, by the way, was the most disrespectful, uncaring, and unfeeling police-person to wear a badge. He said some disrespectful sh*t to me [and] in front of me, to my mother.
I’ll never forget that. I’m scarred for life about that. He actually said to my mother in front of me, “Had you been a better mother, we would be having this conversation”. Absolutely did…
Once we found out the tree was cut down, my mom then started asking questions. She asked Beasley, “Why are you cutting trees down? If you closed the case a month ago, why are you collecting evidence now?”
Beasley was cutting trees down and destroying evidence so that no unbiased individual could come back and investigate the investigation. Because the tree got destroyed in a warehouse fire a couple years later.
I asked the question of the current chief… “So, if he is cutting trees down with evidence… Where are the pictures? Oh, there aren’t any. Okay, where’s the diagram? There isn’t any. Hmm. So he’s collecting evidence, that you have no evidence of… right?”
The reason why he cut the tree down was to get to the branch. See, the branch could tell you which way the rope was going, up or down. Now there’s no evidence because there’s no pictures to see what the rope burns would show…
I have the rope that they gave my mom, I have it in my house. We never got back the noose. My mother kept asking for the noose. Right? “Oh, we’re going to get it to you, we’re going to get it to you.” It’s in their paperwork.
Never got the noose back.
Then the noose comes up missing. Right? The noose could tell you whether a right-handed or left-handed person [tied it].
So now you done lost the noose, you done cut the tree down, the clothing that he has on the tree got “destroyed” because there was so much decomposition, the body did not get an autopsy, and I’m supposed to sit here and believe you when you say to me, my brother committed suicide?? Got it.
I still remember the first time you told Keith’s story and it was the same reaction I had to Rev. Marguerite [Morris] talking about Kathy where it’s just like, you can’t expect someone to believe that. You would have to be foolish to think someone would believe all of those lies. I just don’t understand it. I don’t understand the callousness of it… (cont. in Part 2)